Amazon’s “Kindle Singles”: saviour of the genre short fiction scene?

Paul Raven @ 13-10-2010

Hard to say for sure, really, given that it hasn’t even launched yet, but Amazon’s plans for the “Kindle Singles” service – which in essence appears to be ebooks of the long short-story to novella length – certainly has the potential to put money in the pockets of genre fiction’s clade of short story writers. The shrinking circulations of the Dead-Tree Big Three aren’t looking like a long-term prospect for the short form’s survival, and hell knows that recent experiences right here have demonstrated that making the free-to-read webzine model sustainable is no picnic, either (though I hold hope for better-funded projects such as Lightspeed and going the distance, alongside established non-profit outfits like Strange Horizons).

The real (and as yet unanswered) question is whether people would read (and pay for) short stories if they knew where to find them; the search-term browsability of a platform like Amazon certainly offers the potential to put short stories by known names in front of potential readers who might otherwise be ignorant of the form, and there’s plenty of good (albeit as yet entirely theoretical) arguments that short stories are better suited to the when-you-get-a-moment reading habits of the modern reader. I suspect the most important factor will be pricing, with a splash of gatekeepering and/or curating to filter for quality; if a writer hits the right price point and has a bit of luck with word-of-mouth, the potential is there to cut out the magazine middle-men and reach an untapped audience.

My concern (as a fussy reader and a critic) is that the market’s definition of quality will probably differ wildly from my own; the success of Dan Brown is a clear indication that this is inevitable. But if big digital sales of awful literature support an ecosystem that lets the little guys make a living, well, I think I’ll be able to live with it. Plus ça change, non?

Amazon trying to bypass publishers, acquire ebook rights direct from writers and agents

Paul Raven @ 05-03-2010

Here’s an interesting new development in the Amazon ebooks scramble – the online retailer is apparently trying to obtain Kindle publishing rights for some older and otherwise unlicensed titles direct from authors or their agents in the UK [via @DamienWalter]:

UK literary agents and authors have been approached directly to sell e-book rights to Amazon as it builds its Kindle e-book arsenal ahead of the UK launch of the iPad. US e-book publishers including Rosetta Books are also approaching UK agents and authors to buy backlist e-book rights, with Rosetta favouring an exclusive Amazon deal as part of the package.


A second UK agent said the approaches were being made by Amazon department Kindle Evangelist. “The way they represent themselves is, ‘We are following this big author, he/she is not available in e-book form, why not, can I do anything to expedite that?’ You may say ‘E-book rights have gone to Random House’, in which case they’ll accept that. But if you say ‘No deal has been done’, they might try to be more proactive—engineer a way to encourage the marriage [with the publisher], or even look to acquire the rights themselves.

That should stir up the kerfuffle again, I’m guessing.

Would you buy a Kindle DX?

Paul Raven @ 08-05-2009

Well, we’ve all had a few days to take a look at the specifications and hear the debates, so it’s time to ask – would you consider buying the new Kindle DX? If not, why not?

Amazon Kindle DX ebook reader

Frankly, if I had the money to hand I’d order one now – in full knowledge that something better will be along in a year and make me regret it. They’ve just passed the utility point past which my early-adopter organ starts releasing the hormones; PDF compatibility is the big issue for me, second to a bigger screen size, though apparently there is a small charge for sending a PDF through the system to your device (which is a bit cheeky). Lucky I’m skint right now, I guess… but this is surely much closer to a game-changer device than the last iteration, not to mention easier on the aesthetic eye. What do you think?

Bob Lefsetz seems to agree with me:

The Kindle breeds excitement.  At your fingertips is a breadth of excitement and knowledge.  My little device is always at the ready, and calls me not only at night, but during the day, to delve into a story that tells me so much about the world but is not laden with the hit and run facts of today’s infotainment society.

Fiction tells you more about life than non-fiction.  All these years later, to rediscover the experience of reading stories is thrilling.

But I don’t expect the mainstream to join me on my adventure quite yet.  The buy-in price of the device is way too high, $349.  And the new Kindle, $489, this is not something for the masses!

iPods got cheaper.

Kindles are getting more expensive.

Buy the third or fourth generation.  Maybe the fifth.  The ergonomics will be better and the price will be lower.

Granted, Lefsetz’s experience is in the music industry, but I (and he) still hold that the similarities between the two industries are strong, albeit with change occuring in the book industry at a somewhat more manageable pace. The writing is on the wall… or rather on the screen. 😉

But the response on everyone’s lips seems to be “ooh, just wait until Apple put out a tablet device!” I’d agree that if Apple can nuke the punch-bowl in the same way they did with the iPod, they’ll be onto a winner… but I’m not sure they care enough about books as an industry. Everyone listens to music, and you can listen to music while doing something else; neither of those factors apply to reading. Reading is a very different (and smaller) lifestyle niche, and I’m not sure the iPod business model would scale in the same way.

Furthermore, an Apple tablet will doubtless do loads of other fancy latte-sippin’ Apple stuff as well, and doubtless have the fashionably high price tag to match… so while I’m not feeling the Kindle DX as the apogee of ebook tech, I’m not expecting Steve Jobs and company to lead the field either. My money’s on someone else coming up with a more open and utilitarian platform at a lower price; that’s when things are going to get really lively. [image courtesy Engadget]

Progress – the ebooks debate rumbles on

Paul Raven @ 11-03-2009

Progress - Penny Arcade on ebooksI suppose I shouldn’t be, but I can’t help feeling surprised at how widespread the debate about ebooks is becoming – I honestly didn’t expect so many people would care so soon. Penny Arcade‘s take is unsurprisingly snarky [see right], but also somewhat conservative given their games’n’gadgets leanings (even allowing for comic license).

The best thing about the breadth of the discussion is that we’re getting a whole lot of different perspectives beyond authors and book-nerds. For example, The Big Money gives us the business logistics guy’s view, namely that “[d]igital readers will save writers and publishing, even if they destroy the book business”:

Here’s where the Kindle comes in. The collapse of bookstores almost ensures that the Kindle will thrive. Not because it’s better than a book; that doesn’t matter. The nation-within-a-nation that reads for pleasure and to be informed is a small but vibrant republic. Heavy readers make up a large portion of the book-buying public. These are people who read two to three books a week and buy 50 or so books a year. The Kindle will solve a number of problems for the citizens of Biblandia, not the least of which is having to go find a bookstore to get their next read.

Elsewhere, uber-PR guy and social media pundit Steve Rubel sees the Kindle and its ilk as “the last Great White Hope” for monetizing text media like journalism:

The Kindle, like the iPod, is an emerging critical mass device that actually encourages people to pay for content rather than get it for free. When Apple launched the iTunes Music Store, people were skeptical that people would shell out cash for music they could snag for free from file sharing networks. They did. The same was true when Apple, and later others, rolled out movies. However, today millions rent or buy movies online.

The Kindle offers a similar experience in a much larger market – text. This one is tougher to monetize. In the digital age books have managed to remain premium content. However, beyond books, magazine and newspaper content is available in abundance online for free. Yet, I still believe that people will pay to receive some of their favorites on their Kindles or their Kindle-enabled phones. Meet them there now while you can.

And of course, there’s the segment of the publishing industry that has gotten itself beyond denial and/or arm-flapping to the point of grappling with the potential that’s sat on their doorstep. Rather than dismissing ereaders as imperfect implementations, the Pan Macmillan digital team are looking ahead to what they see as an inevitable “iPod moment” for text:

… the iPod had a phenomenally intuitive control, especially given the bemusing buttons and rollers of it’s competitors (and I should know as I held out for some time, before caving in with a combination of resignation and glee). Characteristic of it’s manufacturer this no doubt has been an enormous boon to the device. Beyond that though the now iconic look from legendary Apple designer Jonathan Ive was what made us want one. The iPod wasn’t just useful, fun etc- it was jaw grindingly desirable.

Usability and covetability. Two principles for world domination.

What strikes me as being the interesting parallel with these two, aside from the the slightly obvious observations just outlined, is that both came from behind. They did not have first mover advantage. Instead they used these design concepts to leapfrog into pole. Indeed, it could be argued that precisely not coming first was an advantage in that it allowed the pair to fine tune their product and get these two crucial areas right.

Going back to the ereader then, I get the sense that we are on the cusp of when useability and covetability collide, uniting in a glorious burst of reading device nirvana. Ok maybe not quite, but once those user interfaces have been tweaked, and once someone like Ive gets there hands on a reading device, they will be back.

So we’re not quite at the “all bets are off” stage, but we’re certainly beyond the point where it’s a few evangelists with sandwich-boards prophesying the end-times. The more I look at it, the more I suspect that with ebooks the question is no longer “if?” but “when?”

What about you lot – how many of you have a reader already, and how has it changed your text media consumption? And for those that don’t have one, what will be the change that makes you cross the line?

Free ebooks appear to boost sales

Tomas Martin @ 05-03-2008

Vernor Vinge made his book ‘Rainbow’s End’ free to read onlineTor author (and sometimes Futurismic blogger) Tobias Buckell has an interesting post talking about the effects of authors giving away their novels. There has been a lot of criticism of the practice by some writers and lots of praise from other corners. But with Neil Gaiman adding his superb bestseller ‘American Gods’ to the list of books you can legally download for free, are people shooting themselves in the foot or will this bring more income in the future through increased readership?

At the moment, it looks like the practice works. Two of John Scalzi’s books are up 20% and 33% in sales since the first one was released as a free ebook by Tor. As Charles Stross has mentioned, the fact that current ebooks are as much as a few hundred grams of chopped down tree, chemical treatment, ink printing, shiny cover embossing, a few thousand miles of transportation, part of the salaries of manufacturers, printers, truck drivers and shop assistants that make up the price of a typical physical book is simply insane. And that’s not even including the price of an ebook reader like the Kindle monstrosity. So until someone comes up with a £50 reader that gives you digital books for £3, £2 of which goes to the author, ebooks aren’t a business model. But they do provide clever authors with the chance to increase their reader base. What do you guys think? Would you purchase a book after you’ve been impressed by the free ebook version?

[image is the cover of Vernor Vinge’s novel ‘Rainbow’s End’, which you can find for free online here.]

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